(And what you can do to support them!)
The continual spread of COVID-19 has brought travel more or less to a halt. While we frequent travelers and globetrotters are feeling the pain of quarantine as we sit at home, thumbing through our favorite travel magazines and scrolling through our favorite travel pics on Instagram, there’s another group of individuals who are feeling the impact COVID-19 has had on the travel industry a little more acutely.
Owners of small and mid-size travel and hospitality brands — from tour providers to regional hotel chains to trip planners — are looking at a 2020 that appears very different from the future of several months ago. Cancellations, travel bans, reduced flights and more are just added problems that these business owners have to deal with on top of the stress of day-to-day operations. Compile all this with the added challenge of being a black woman in business and you have a situation that would make some throw in the towel.
After all, according to recent research, black-owned businesses generally have a smaller financial cushion with which to overcome economic turmoil and, following economy reopening, potential black owners rarely can obtain loans in their founding year. Despite this, black women entrepreneurs are making huge progress. According to Inc., minority women control 44 percent of women-owned businesses in the United States and, while the number of white women-owned businesses grew 40 percent from 1997 to 2016, those owned by black women grew by 518 percent.
We spoke with an intrepid group of businesswomen who are hanging tight to their dreams and hopes for the hospitality and travel industry, despite the struggles and the threat of COVID-19’s effects lasting well into the rest of the year — and you can support them, all without leaving your couch.
Myrline St. Hubert — founder of NUME Homes, a lodging alternative to hotels currently operating in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, New York and San Francisco — says she’s been watching the COVID-19 situation since January.
“I started to plan for the possibility of cancellations due to the spread of the virus. I spoke to my attorneys about our refund policy, which was strictly in the favor of NUME Homes. I paid attention to the airlines which were not looking to issue refunds at that point. I didn’t want to punish my guests, many of whom are business travelers, if they were unable to keep their reservations due to a situation that was out of their control. I wanted to preserve the company’s reputation for the long term,” she says.
“Because of this, I wanted to get ahead of it. I reached out to my clients; I didn’t want them to have to reach out to me. With my understanding of how the virus was spreading, and that it was staying on surfaces, I didn’t want to put my staff at risk. I forewarned staff members that I might have to close down the business and, if so, I’d have to temporarily lay them off. I made an early decision to shut down the business.
“By February, I started contacting guests from Europe, many of whom did not want to cancel their reservations at that point. Some downplayed the crisis into late February — even guests from Italy. I invited them to stay in touch. As the crisis developed, I started getting calls for refunds, which I did on the spot with an email confirmation from each one. They were thankful.”
Despite these challenges, St. Hubert keeps a positive outlook.
“ What motivates me now starts with my family — I have a young daughter and my husband is a doctor who is on the front lines fighting the virus. They both inspire me. I also look at the silver linings of the crisis,” she says. “The environment has improved: People in India are seeing the Himalayas, some for the first time. It’s tough because of the way it has come about; we’re losing so many people. It seems that Mother Earth wanted a change. We’re forced to give her that change. Our world is getting somewhat better.
“I am more conscious of my health — cooking more, baking my own bread. I am more conscious about the cleaning supplies I use. I am spending more time with my daughter, home schooling and being able to see just how bright she is. I’m hearing from relatives I haven’t been in close touch with recently. In some ways, even with the distancing, it’s bringing us closer together. We have time to reflect and we should make the most of it. We are hyper aware. It’s not the usual ‘go-go-go’ where we do things without thinking. I also realize that we are blessed because we have the technology to be informed on what is going on. We are very resourceful as a nation. This is a temporary situation. It will pass.”
Natalie John is CEO of Dreamy Weddings, a destination wedding planning service based in St. Kitts and Nevis. In addition to being unable to keep all her staff during the pandemic, she reports lost revenue from February through June, with clients cancelling their confirmed bookings. She’s thus had to establish a smaller work force, increase her number of part-time workers and utilize more online software tools for work-from-home days.
She recommends that, firstly, if you do have travel planned, such as a destination event or wedding, to not cancel that travel — simply postpone it. If you don’t have a trip currently planned, make sure you’re following your favorite travel brands’ social media pages and then refer your friends to follow them, too (such as the Dreamy Weddings Instagram page, at @dreamyweddings_!).
Joyce Destang, a hotel owner within the Bay Garden Group, which owns an array of resorts and properties across the Caribbean, tells a similar story.
“With the onset of COVID-19, we have had millions of dollars’ worth of cancellations or rebookings,” she says. "So far we have managed to keep 90 percent of our employees and are providing them income support through the end of April. However, the income support is still a fraction of their incomes (50 percent for most) and it is having a substantial impact on their lives as well as on the economy. When combined with the cancellations and refunds, we are looking at a situation where we will be burning through well over $1 million in cash flow over the next few months with no certainty as to when things will return to normal. We hope to resume normal operations in May.”
She, like John, also urges travelers to “postpone, don’t cancel!” Many travel brands are offering rebooking offers. The Bay Garden Group is doing just this, giving guests who rebook their trip within a year a free night’s stay.
Destang has been making significant changes to the way her property does business, both now and after the pandemic wanes. Cleaning protocols have been enhances. New partnerships with Tripmate provide travel insurance that covers pandemics. Cancellation policies are more flexible. For those worried about social distancing months from now, the property’s common spaces, such as restaurants and event venues, are being adjusted to provide more space for individuals. (And if you needed another reason to support Destang and other business owners like her, just know that her property is not only owned by a black woman, but all of the general managers are also local black women, as are 70 percent the managers.)
So, how can you help black women-owned businesses right now?
Take John’s advice and postpone your trip versus canceling it, and take advantage of those rescheduling deals that many travel brands are providing, such as those offered at Destang’s property.
Show your support for black women-owned businesses on social media with follows, reposts and shares.
Then, when it’s time to book new travel post-COVID-19, search out black women-owned businesses to support. Put your travel dollars to a good cause: supporting the black women entrepreneur community when it needs it most.